The concept of forensic accounting has a relatively short but fabled history, possibly starting with the man who brought down one of the biggest fish of them all, Al Capone. U.S. Treasury Department Special Intelligence Unit Agent Frank J. Wilson was tasked with going after the notorious gangster for tax evasion, ultimately resulting in his conviction and imprisonment.
Not everyone has what it takes to be an accountant, and even fewer can be forensic accountants. It is a potentially fascinating career that requires an uncommon combination of skills. If you're good with numbers and enjoy finance, and especially if you like the idea of following a money trail to expose corruption, graft, and white collar crime, then a job as a forensic accountant may be the perfect criminology career for you.
Forensic Accountant Duties & Responsibilities
This job generally requires the ability to do the following work:
- Assess losses and potential damage awards.
- Apply tax law knowledge.
- Apply knowledge of financial accounting practices.
- Report writing.
- Provide courtroom testimony.
- Conduct and assist in external investigations.
- Work closely with law enforcement officers and agencies.
- Work independently.
- Audit internal and external financial documents.
- Conduct and assist with internal investigations.
Forensic accountants perform two broad functions: litigation support and investigation. Accountants who perform litigation support provide information regarding losses from torts, as well as potential judgments and awards from lawsuits. They work with attorneys to determine what damages to seek. In some cases, the work of a forensic accountant providing litigation support can help resolve a case before it ever gets to trial.
Forensic accountants who provide investigative services do so for public and private employers. They audit books and financial records to locate evidence of fraud and other financial crimes.
Investigative accountants use their knowledge of tax law and accounting practices to investigate all manner of fraudulent bookkeeping, including tax evasion, embezzlement, and money laundering. They also may be called upon to assist in investigating crimes related to securities fraud and locating financiers of terrorism and criminal acts.
Forensic Accountant Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks salaries for accountants and for forensic science technicians, but not specifically for forensic accountants. The salary figures below are for accountants and auditors. Forensic science technicians have a median annual salary of $58,230 with the bottom 10% earning less than $34,600 and the top 10% earning more than $97,200.
- Median Annual Salary: $70,500 ($33.89/hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: $122,840 ($59.05/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $43,650 ($20.98/hour)
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
Education, Training, & Certification
To become a forensic accountant, at least a four-year degree in finance or accounting is required. Because it is a competitive field, a master’s degree is preferable, and the best candidates are certified public accountants (CPAs).
- Education: In addition to earning an undergraduate degree in finance or accounting, it’s a good idea for anyone who desires to be a forensic accountant specifically to also study criminal justice, perhaps as a minor.
- Certification: The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants offers a program to become certified in financial forensics. The program is offered to individuals who are already certified public accountants. Though it is not necessarily required to hold a financial forensics certificate, it can be very beneficial in the search for a job.
- Training: Those working for law enforcement agencies as sworn officers may need to attend a police academy.
Due to the sensitive nature of the job, no matter where you work, a thorough background investigation will likely be part of the hiring process.
Forensic Accountant Skills & Competencies
Experience and skills as an accountant or as a law enforcement officer are important, but there also are certain soft skills necessary to be a good forensic accountant.
- Analytical skills: Forensic accountants look for inconsistencies in finances or clues into what suspects might have attempted to do or cover up. This involves the analytical skills necessary to identify patterns or a lack of patterns.
- Communication skills: Forensic accountants need to cooperate with others involved in investigations and sometimes testify in court. People they communicate with don’t always have an accounting background, so information needs to be conveyed in a way that is understood by everyone.
- Math skills: Being good at math is at the heart of being a good accountant. Forensic accountants should be able to look at a set of numbers and quickly deduce what they mean. This doesn’t require high-level equations, but it’s necessary to do basic math quickly enough to visualize what’s going with a set of financial records.
- Attention to detail: Criminal activity related to finances often is subtle, and it takes a detail-oriented accountant to pick up the smallest inconsistencies that might indicate something is not right.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for forensic science technicians are projected to increase by about 17% for the decade ending in 2026, and opportunities for accountants are projected to increase by about 10% for the same time period. Both rates of growth are better than the 7% projected for all professions.
Forensic accountants may be hired by private corporations to reduce and eliminate instances of internal fraud. They also may serve as or work closely with private investigators. Private forensic accountants may assist public law enforcement agencies with investigations or share their findings with law enforcement for further action.
Forensic accountants also may be found working within specialized units of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Some FBI agents, for example, specialize in financial crimes and fraud investigations. Forensic accountants also may find jobs as Secret Service agents and even NCIS agents.
Work generally is done during normal business hours, but it is not uncommon for forensic accountants to work overtime, depending on the nature and timeliness of the case being investigated.
Comparing Similar Jobs
People interested in forensic accounting also might consider one of the following career paths, listed with median annual salaries:
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018